The most effective use of Project Based Learning that I have ever been a part of occurred in my Biology II, The Great Diseases course where the students were studying inadequate access to sanitation around the world. The students were asked to acknowledge World Toilet Day put forth by the World Health Organization in February of last year. The purpose of this day is to bring awareness to the 2.6 billion people around the world who do not have access to adequate sanitation methods. The students were asked to observe this day by only using one toilet facility on campus, and this facility happened to be a 5 – 7 minute walk from the majority of their classrooms. The other stipulation was that the timing of the use of this facility could not be disruptive to any of their classes or their teachers. They needed to plan out when they would be able to go to the bathroom so that it was convenient for them without being obtrusive. The students commented that they originally thought that the day was going to be amusing or even fun, until it became a nuisance. This simple activity allowed the students to develop empathy for the many people in the developing world that also have to plan out the proper time to find and use the bathroom facilities so that it is convenient and more importantly, safe, for them.
In reflection of the toilet awareness activity in the following class, a discussion ensued about the injustice of the inadequate sanitation issues around the world and the students indicated at that time that they wanted to learn more about this issue. It was at this point that I could see the beginnings of a project that I had not planned. I asked the students to do some preliminary and independent research on areas around the world that suffered most significantly from inadequate access to sanitation and to be prepared to report out on that research in the following class period. The students discussed their findings and decided that they were most interested in learning more about inadequate access to sanitation of the squatting communities in urban India. The students were moved by a recent reporting of two young girls in Uttar Pradesh, India who had gone into a field at night to relieve themselves and were followed by two men who proceeded to rape and murder these young girls. It was a devastating and tragic story and the students were outraged and decided that they wanted to help.
In my own preliminary research about toilets in developing nations, I came across a TedTalk, Innovation to Sanitation Through Empathic Design, by Jasmine Burton. Burton, a recent graduate of the University of Georgia, majored in Empathic Design. I felt that Jasmine would be an interesting connection for my students because of her geographic location and her age. So, I found her email address on her web page and reached out to Ms. Burton to see if she would be willing to respond with some information about her toilet design and the implementation of her design in Africa. Ms. Burton replied that she would be very excited to speak to my students and asked to Skype with them if possible.
The Skype session took place the following week with Ms. Burton, who, unbeknownst to us, was currently living in Zambia and working on the implementation of her own empathically designed toilet into rural villages there. Prior to the Skype session, the students read about Ms. Burton, her business Wish For Wash, and her toilet design. The session lasted approximately 50 minutes with the students leading the discussion through their questions.
After the Skype session with Ms. Burton, the students told me that they were very interested in moving forward with their research and wanted to design a toilet for the squatting communities in India. The students used the next few weeks to research existing designs, created their own toilet designs, and then made prototypes of their design in the Maker Space of their school out of cardboard and plastic materials. Ms. Burton had asked to Skype with the students again after they created their prototypes so that she could offer suggestions for modifications that would help make the design of their toilets more functional.
During the second Skype session, Ms. Burton told the students that she thought that their designs were creative but that they would not know if they were feasible until they created them out of corrugated cardboard (which many life-size prototypes are made from, apparently) and made the toilets true to size. At this point, I just looked up Corrugated Cardboard in Richmond, VA and reached out to a local corrugated cardboard company, Richmond Corrugated Box, that agreed to allow my students and me to come to the factory for a tour. While there, the students were able to work with Richmond Corrugated Box’s Graphic Designer to import their prototype designs onto the software and print them on corrugated cardboard.
The experience was beneficial to students as they were able to see their designs in real time, make modifications in the moment, and then have them printed so that they designs were an adequate representation of what they wanted for their field toilets.
The final aspect of this project was a Skype session with Ms. Burton to show her the student designs and discuss the pros and cons of each design. Ms. Burton suggested reaching out to various NGOs to discuss the possibility of adopting the toilet design to have them mass-produced and shipped to India. The students were not ready for this step however because there were many unanswered questions that needed to be addressed before the designs felt sufficient and useful enough for the students to move forward with production.
This project was extremely in-depth and the students were exposed to multiple facets of learning that they would not have if they did not take on this project. They were tasked with designing a toilet that would be light enough to move, sturdy enough to withstand multiple uses, to weigh the pros and cons of a sitting vs. squatting toilet, the financial burden of mass-producing a product such as this, the logistics of finding a way to deliver the design to India, the environmental impacts of the dumping of these toilets which would inevitably happen on the streets and in the drainage run-off areas. The list is endless and though this project took longer than expected, the depth and breadth of learning was also more comprehensive than expected which lead to a feeling of successful learning of the students and myself. A number of the students went on to write their college entrance essays about this project, entitled #everybodypoops (which you can follow on Twitter).
Project-based learning is a tool used to develop 21st-century skills and to put content knowledge into practice in an authentic way. PBL is not a new tool but it is the only tool that this career educator has found that can accomplish these goals of skill development, content knowledge enhancement, and problem-solving prowess.